Music from the last forty-eight years, including two premieres and two works by an underestimated twentieth-century master, dealt another full house in Watson Hall on Saturday night.
The occasion was a joint recital by flutist Tadeu Coelho, hornist David Jolley and pianist Eric Larsen. The underestimated master was Francis Poulenc, represented by two pieces from 1957: the popular Sonata for flute and piano and the less frequently performed Elegie for horn and piano. The Sonata seems tireless; is there a chamber work from the latter 20th-century I’ve heard more often? And yet, it remains effortlessly charming, with one of my favorite tempo indications – Allegro malinconico – in the first movement.
The Elegie is a shocking contrast. Composed upon the death of the one of the greatest horn players of all time, Dennis Brain, who was killed in a car accident at the age of 37, the piece is angry, confused, despairing and unsettling – not at all the Gallic sensibility one associates with this composer, and miles away from the Sonata composed at the same time.
There was one duo for flute and horn on the program: Jan Bach’s Four 2-Bit Contraptions from 1964, a diverting set of comic stunts, including parodies of military and waltz music, and a clever evocation of something some of my students have never heard: a skipping LP.
Of the four trios on the concert, two were premieres and the other two were fairly recent works by Katherine Hoover and Eric Ewazen. Hoover’s trio, Summer Night (1986), was a pleasant surprise. I’ve played some of her music and wasn’t hugely impressed, but this piece was very good, with striking ideas and a great sense of timing. The Ewazen trio was a disappointment – the second and third movement had some really beautiful music, but the piece was far longer than its material warranted, and each movement ended with a real clunker of a cadence.
Unfortunate when something so simple can make a good meal leave a bad taste in your mouth.
One of the premieres was by Richard Hermann, a composer/theorist in his mid-fifties from the University of New Mexico. Entitled Zephyrus, the piece traced an elusive sound world from delicate interactions among the three instruments, with a recurrent theme of different timbres on a single pitch passed around the ensemble.
There, I’ve reported as much as I can remember of the rest of the program. Now for the highlight of the evening – for this listener at least – the premiere of my own Embarkation for flute, horn and piano.
Two years ago, David Jolley and the Carolina Chamber Symphony approached me about composing a concerto for horn and orchestra. I was delighted to oblige, of course, and set to work in February 2004. Nine months later, or last November, I completed the piece. The next morning, I woke up, did a quick scan of the score, and realized that I had written a work that was on a far grander scale than I had intended. In other words – it was interminably long.
The premiere was just two months away. In a panic, I set about trying to cut it down to a more manageable size, but my efforts were fruitless. Finally, I realized I had to start over. So David premiered my second horn concerto last February – as it was written in two frenzied weeks in December.
But what to do with the first, sprawling concerto? Well, Saturday night, the first movement was transformed into a trio. We all want to do what we can to save the planet; this was my little contribution to recycling.
The piece is in four sections – ABAB. The A section has a martial air, which really upset me at the time I was writing it, because I’ve never written anything remotely military-sounding, and I certainly had no interest in doing so now. But that was the way the music was coming out, so I went with it. In retrospect, I realize that in February 2004 I was – like everyone else- much concerned with what was going on in Iraq. Great thing, and hard thing, about writing music: you can’t hide from what you are really thinking. And sometimes it comes out in unexpected ways.
The B section is a complete contrast: static, ruminative and pastoral. When the A returns, it is even more aggressive than before, then the return of the B section is even more lyrical and peaceful than its earlier incarnation.
So, two sections that start in completely different places and move in opposite directions. Sound anything like the political climate in 2004?
The performance of the piece was great, and I’m very happy with the first and last sections. The two middle sections need some retooling. In particular, the second A section needs a few stopped horn notes to help punctuate chords in the piano.
But enough about me – how about these listeners? Two Saturday nights in a row, without a note written before the 1920s. Two packed houses, with young and old, music lovers and curiosity seekers, die-hards and first-timers.
I’m starting to believe there is an interested audience out there.